So you have a choir of 12 or 8 or 5 or all women and one male. The list of variations could go on. What are you, as director, to do about it? Carl Schalk has said “The smaller parish can be an exhilarating place for worship and church music, but it requires creativity and resourcefulness.” (Cross Accent, Journal of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians, “Getting More for Less”, November 2012). Now read the same phrase substituting “smaller choir” for “smaller parish.”
Begin with available resources – and be aware of what you have. The function of the choir is to support and enrich the song, the voice of the people, the gathered assembly. The choir also brings richness and variety by singing and leading portions of the liturgy that they rehearse – psalms and acclamations, new musical settings. If, on a Sunday morning, your choir has eight voices and your congregation has eighty, - you have the potential for an eighty-eight voice choir! Now use your creativity.
Your hymnal is the first and best choir resource. It is a rich treasury of liturgical and worship materials of varying kinds. Begin with a hymnal and let it become your personal resource. Take your hymnal with you as you attend conferences, hymn festivals and workshops. Write down musical ideas and thoughts, hymns sung in canon, etc. Any idea, no matter how small, can spark a new idea for your use.
Vary the presentation of hymns but use them sparingly, making sure are they are consistent with the spirit of the hymn. A few ideas, old and new, which are good to review are:
1. Alternatum – Vary the singing of stanzas by groups, choir, solos, men, women, etc., - especially on hymns with many stanzas.
2. Vary the voicing – women on melody, men on tenor or bass part; men on melody and women on alto.
3. Think about the tune and text and how both work together. I once set the text of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” to the tune TON-Y-BOTEL/EBENEZER. The text takes on a totally different character and turned out to be a charming choir anthem.
Hymns/texts new to congregation
The addition of global music in recent hymnals adds another dimension to worship and the opportunity for the choir to teach and to lead. Musicians Guide to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, is an excellent guide for musicians containing essays on styles, practices and interpretations of varying styles of hymnody. The guide offers suggestions for accompaniments and rhythmic patterns for hand percussion instruments. Leading the Church’s Song is a practical introduction to leading congregational song in a variety of musical styles and with various instrumental accompaniments. An audio CD is included, which helps to master different styles of hymnody. Your choir “anthem” for the day can be the presentation of an unfamiliar hymn. Add some hand percussion as appropriate. And remember – there is NOTHING wrong with unison singing. Sung well, unison singing is just as difficult as four-part music.
Hal Hopson's The Creative Church Musician Series is a series which addresses the use of choirs, instruments, handbells, organ, and piano in worship. The Creative Use of Choirs in Worship especially offers ideas for choirs, including handbell punctuation and ostinato patterns, Orff instruments, descants, canons, part voicing, and varied accompaniments.
Don’t forget the obvious – the wealth of material in Taizé (use the children also); call and response patterns (refrains and verses); hymns in tandem, and hymn concertatos.
The primary task of music ministry, regardless of church size, should be to help the congregation give voice to its worship.
The choir with only a few voices is still an opportunity for rich worship and praise. The limits of size does not necessitate a limitation of spirit or ministry or potential. It is the privilege of church musicians – whether with a dozen or a thousand tongues – to lead the people in worship and praise of God. Do it in joy and with expectation, assured that God hears the song of each tongue.